BRISBANE, Australia (Reuters) - Authorities urged thousands of people to leave the outskirts of Australia’s third-largest city, Brisbane, on Tuesday as floodwaters raced eastwards after a surging two-metre wall of water killed nine people overnight.
Cars and pedestrians were swept away on Monday night when a “super rainstorm” sent water raging through the streets of Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. Police said more than 40 people had been pulled from rooftops by helicopters, but by mid-afternoon 59 were still missing.
The worst flooding in Queensland state in 50 years has killed 13 people in the past two weeks, but police warn the death toll could rise significantly.
Traffic jams formed in central Brisbane as people headed out by car amid heavy rains and initial flooding, residents stocked up on food supplies and families started filling evacuation centres in the city and the neighbouring town of Ipswich.
Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman said some 6,500 homes, businesses and properties would be flooded by Thursday.
“The situation has obviously demonstrably deteriorated, Newman told a news conference. “Today is very significant, tomorrow is bad, and Thursday is going to be devastating for the residents and businesses affected.”
The floods have at times covered an area bigger than France and Germany combined and caused an estimated $6 billion in damage. Floodwaters have brought the state’s $25 billion coking coal export industry to a virtual standstill, hit tourism and devastated agriculture.
The flood crisis will also hit economic growth this year, heighten inflation as food prices rise, dampen retail spending and is forecast to prompt Australia’s central bank to delay an expected interest rate rise from February to May.
The Australian dollar sank to a three-week low on Tuesday on concerns that Queensland’s flooded coal mines, supplying Asia’s steel mills, may take months to return to normal production.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the flooding would not derail an expected budget surplus in 2012-13. But the National Australia Bank said the floods would reduce growth by 0.25 percent over this quarter and last.
Newman said Brisbane’s main dam, which had so far protected the city from flooding, was full and authorities now had to release water which would send floods into Brisbane.
Authorities said the Brisbane flooding could be worse than devastating floods in 1974, when the Brisbane River burst its banks, flooding thousands of homes and killing 14 people.
“Ipswich and Brisbane are facing their greatest threat and their toughest test in more than 35 years,” Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh said.
“The situation continues to deteriorate. We need to make every effort to stay calm and stick together. If you live on high ground now is the time to reach out and offer help to neighbours ... and offer a bed for the night,” said Bligh.
Workers deserted high-rise office towers in the centre of the city as constant rain continued to swell the Brisbane River, which was lapping boardwalks and riverbank buildings.
“It’s taking on new proportions and getting worse by the minute,” said Gary McGowan, a businessman who lives and works in a western suburb of the city, noting boats and pontoons were being swept away by the flood surge.
Local Brisbane woman Julia Zhu piled sandbags into a Mercedes and made plans to defend her high-end gown business in a low-lying part of the city.
“We have half-a-million dollars worth of stock and no insurance cover,” Zhu told Reuters.
A Coles supermarket in the city’s West End area was doing a roaring trade as residents stocked up, with bread and vegetables already sold out.
“They’ve been grabbing potatoes and other things,” said a shop assistant in front of long queues of shoppers at tills.
Crocodiles at a nearby Sunshine Coast zoo founded by the late television wildlife star Steve Irwin were being tied up in case they escaped in the deluge.
The Queensland floods have been blamed on a La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific, with Australia recording its third-wettest year on record in 2010, with two wet-season months to go. Weather officials are also forecasting an above average cyclone season.
“The Queensland floods are caused by what is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, La Nina events since our records began in the late 19th century,” said Professor Neville Nicholls, an environmental science expert at Monash University.
Television footage showed brown floodwater gushing through the centre of Toowoomba on Monday laden with debris, as people clung to telephone poles and rooftops to survive.
Panicked motorists climbed onto cars to escape the deluge, which destroyed homes and bridges, and hurled cars into trees and buildings like corks.
“Early reports would indicate that what hit Toowoomba could best be described as an inland, instant tsunami, with a massive wall of water that’s gone down through the Lockyer Valley,” Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said.
The Queensland floods, which started in December, have paralysed operations that produce 35 percent of Australia’s estimated 259 million tonnes of exportable coal.
Australia contributes two-thirds of world exports of steelmaking raw material coking coal.
Coal seam gas drilling in the Surat Basin, a big source of gas for an estimated $200 billion in proposed liquefied natural gas projects, was halted on Monday by flooding.
Global miners Anglo American (AAL.L), Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) (RIO.L), Xstrata XTA.L and BHP Billiton (BHP.AX) BLT.L, have been hit by the floods, and all have made force majeure declarations, which release firms from delivery commitments.
Flooding has begun to recede in the main Bowen Basin coal region, but many mines remain flooded and will take weeks to drain and resume full production. While some rail links between mines and the ports have been opened, others are under water.
Coal stocks were running low at the key coal port of Dalrymple Bay, but it was receiving enough to keep loading ships, while the port of Gladstone said it could be days to weeks before it starts getting coal supplies back to normal.
Hotel operators said the rain had caused cancellations in popular tourist strips on the Sunshine and Gold coasts, which claim a large slice of the $32 billion tourism industry.
(Additional reporting by Amy Pyett, Michael Smith and Michael Perry in Sydney)
Writing by Rob Taylor; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Dean Yates